Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

Having already made a name for herself with her first book of poems, Once: Poems (1968), and her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Walker found herself the center of a great deal of critical attention when In Love and Trouble came out in 1973. Louis Pratt and Darnell Pratt list twenty-nine reviews in their annotated bibliography, Alice Malsenior Walker, far more than usual for a first volume of short stories. The reviews were almost unanimously favorable, although a few reviewers found the stories uneven in quality. One issue for writers of fiction at the end of the twentieth century is whether fiction that does not revolve around white men can be considered ‘‘universal.’’

Often, books about white men are thought of as representing the ‘‘human condition,’’ while books about women are thought to represent women, and books about black women are thought to represent black women. Some early reviewers praised Walker for drawing on her own experiences in the rural South to portray the particular situations of black women. Barbara Smith, in a review for Ms., admires Walker’s skill at exploring ‘‘with honesty the texture and terrors of Black women’s lives.’’ In a review for The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, Mercedes Wright argues that Walker’s characters face their particular conflicts because they live in a racist and sexist society.

Other earlier reviews acknowledged that Walker’s characters are, as the title states, black women, but felt that their stories were more widely applicable. Writing for Bestsellers, Oscar Bouise reports that Walker had enabled him to appreciate the experiences of these women, and praises her as a ‘‘master of style.’’ V. S. Nyabongo praises Walker in Books Abroad for presenting a collection of stories which, through women’s stories, reflect on themes that are significant for all people.

‘‘Roselily’’ remained a much-admired but seldom- discussed story after the first rush of reviews, receiving renewed notice after Walker’s winning of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award for The Color Purple gave rise to a reevaluation of her earlier work. In her groundbreaking essay ‘‘Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction,’’ Alice Hall Petry demonstrates that the situations that keep Walker’s women ‘‘in love and trouble’’ are not of their own making. ‘‘Certainly marriage offers these women nothing, and neither does religion, be it Christianity, the Black Muslim faith, or voodoo.’’ Mary Helen Washington agrees, in ‘‘An Essay on Alice Walker,’’ that Roselily is ‘‘trapped and cut down by archaic conventions, by superstition, by traditions that in every way cut women off from the right to life.’’

After the publication of The Color Purple, it became something of a cliche to charge that the male characters in Walker’s fiction are portrayed in too negative a light, and her women, while downtrodden, are invariably resilient. Two critics have noted, however, that Roselily displays no special pluck in her current situation. In an essay titled ‘‘Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker: A Spiritual Kinship,’’ Alma Freeman compares Roselily with Janie Crawford, the protagonist in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and finds that, unlike Janie, Roselily accepts her entrapment. Donna Haisty Winchell agrees that Roselily is an example of the women in In Love and Trouble who are not seen ‘‘fighting back successfully against preconceived, stultifying, and restrictive notions of women’s roles.’’

Critics have also discussed the experimental qualities of the story. Hall finds the irony of alternating Roselily’s thoughts with the words of the wedding ceremony ‘‘heavy-handed,’’ but concludes ‘‘the device does work in this story.’’ Barbara Christian, in ‘‘The Contrary Women...

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of Alice Walker,’’ notes the narrator’s use of the third person pronoun she to represent Roselily’s own thoughts, and suggests, ‘‘even in Roselily’s mind, the being who wonders about, questions this day of triumph, is both herself, and yet not herself.’’

In 1994, ‘‘Roselily’’ suddenly attracted national attention again, when the California Department of Education ordered the story removed from a statewide reading test. The call for removal came from a group called the Traditional Values Coalition, which labeled the story antireligious. They worried that Roselily’s admission that she does not believe in God, the fact of her husband’s belief in Islam, and the implied questioning of marriage itself would raise improper questions for the tenth graders taking the test. Supporters of the story’s inclusion spoke of the need for state tests and curricula to include challenging, thought-provoking material that deals with real-world issues. Ironically, during the same year as the ‘‘Roselily’’ controversy, Walker was honored by California’s governor as a ‘‘state treasure’’ for her contributions to literature.

Walker has collected the text of ‘‘Roselily’’ and two other censored pieces of her own writing, letters to the editor in support of and opposed to ‘‘Roselily,’’ and transcripts of the State Board of Education hearings on the matter into a book called Banned. As is the case with most cases of book removal, the removal of the story from the California test served to create renewed interest in the story, and to bring it to the attention of a new generation of readers.


Essays and Criticism